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bigger is better?

Please note: The following is not intended to be a personal criticism of Dr. Talley. This is, for better or worse, a public response to a public letter, and it is intended to spur further conversation on the issue of the mission of the church.

Dr. Doug Talley, the State Pastor of the Church of God in Indiana, just wrote his monthly letter to ministers and churches in Indiana. It’s worth a read; take a minute to give it a once-over.

Dr. Talley makes it very clear that he’s not interested in churches getting bigger just for the sake of getting bigger. But I disagree with his reasoning in this letter.

I believe churches should be transforming society, not conforming to it. In many – perhaps most – communities churches could close and no one would notice. That must break God’s heart.

Yes, churches should work to transform society, absolutely. But an attempt to pull God’s heart-strings (and, hence, ours) isn’t the best kind of argument to make. Besides, take your typical mega-church; if it closes, the community at large might notice – and might rejoice that the opulent, Starbucks-drinking Christians have finally left town. The issue isn’t size; the issue is the type of lifestyle that believers are living in the context of their local communities. If church is a social club rather than a point of personal contact with the community, then we really are missing the point.

While I love churches of all sizes, the larger a church is, the more impact it can have on a community. I want the church to maximize its community impact. That is part of why I want to see churches reaching people for Jesus Christ – because each person needs Christ and because as people are won to Christ, churches increase in size AND IMPACT!

Impact should not be defined by size of parking lot. I would argue exactly the opposite point: the larger a church is, the less impact it can have on a community. Of course a larger church has a bigger budget (or it should, anyway), more people, more ideas, and so forth. But with increased size, I believe, comes a certain amount of separation from the local community. One goes to church as an event, not as a means of interacting with the local community, not as a means of being rejuvenated by the Spirit for service in the community. And the local community becomes less visible in a large church; instead, the church forms its own sub-community, and it is much easier for everyday believers to slip through the cracks and miss out on serving the Lord with their lives outside the walls of the church building.

Besides, there’s always the empirical test. Which church has more community impact: the mega-church with its 40-acre parking lot (filled with people who drive 30 minutes to church), or the small church nestled in the local community (even partially filled with people who walk (or drive) 5 minutes to church)?

Take your 3,000-member church, train a few dozen new ministers, and plant thirty 100-member churches in different parts of the community. Tell me that won’t create more community impact.

For me it is much more about impact than the size of the church. Yet, if a church is really impacting its community, chances are it will be increasing in size. I believe the church is the hope of the world. And our world needs more hope.

Bad logic. “Chances are” is not a convincing argument. Also, hidden here in Dr. Talley’s words is a subtle yet dangerous idea: that if we do the right things, if we practice the right kind of religion, then we are guaranteed success as we have defined it. Is it possible that a church can impact its community in tremendous ways and yet people remain resistant to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Could Jesus heal ten lepers and only see 10% growth on the deal? Could his own hometown reject him altogether? Surely Jesus was no failure… or was he?

And no, Dr. Talley, the church is not the hope of the world. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. We do agree, though, that the world needs more hope.

Lest you think that I am advocating that small churches remain small, I’ll conclude with one more thought that has been rolling around in my head lately. I wonder if the kingdom of God is hindered by small churches that have become content in remaining small. Once a typical 50-member church has established a core set of relationships, are they really willing (or able) to expand those relationships to include 50 new members, even just a few at a time? I wonder about these things.

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